Sony recently launched its Super Wiimote (called Move), continuing its long term copycat policy of taking Nintendo's successful ideas and refining them slightly. At $100 to $130 (depending on how completely you want to copy the Wii's control schemes), Move is not going to sell many extra PS3's for Sony, although as you'd expect from a product coming four years after the original it's a quality piece of kit. Reviewers everywhere rightly observe that even with superior sensitivity to Wii Plus, Move is hardly going to be an essential purchase for gamer hobbyists, since no-one is looking for a step down in control precision, and the 'Mii Too' software line-up smacks of a complete failure of imagination.
Against this, Microsoft have released their Super EyeToy (called Kinect). I have to hand it to Microsoft, it's a bold strategy to eschew copying the successful new peripheral in town and instead copy an older, less successful device. To their credit, it's an impressively flashy device, but at $150 it's hardly going to shift 360's by doubling the retail price. I have to say, Kinect would be an outstanding basis for an arcade cabinet – perhaps Microsoft should chat to their old friends at the ghost of Sega about this –but its huge virtual footprint scupper any chance of it becoming a 'must have' for most 360 owners. Right now, investing in a Kinect requires something of a leap of faith (as CNET shrewdly observed) since the device promises more than the software currently delivers.
The bottom line is that neither Move nor Kinect are really about taking on Nintendo in this round of the console squabbles. This bout is already over and Nintendo won a decisive victory, while Microsoft earns an honourable mention for just barely wriggling out of last place, albeit with an ongoing failure to be profitable. The big question, the one that still matters, is 'which input mechanisms will be key to the digital games market in 2012?'
Why 2012? Well, Sony have always been refreshingly forthright about their plans: they run a ten-year hardware cycle with six years between new iterations: PlayStation in 1994, PS2 in 2000, PS3 in 2006, so PS4 in 2012. The timing isn't hard to calculate, but the strategy is harder to fathom. Imagine you're in Sony's shoes... You have to start work on your new hardware but you don't know what interface it's going to need. No console has ever shipped with multiple control mechanisms (nor is any likely to do so, since most hardware already sells as a loss leader), so you have to pick just one of the three approaches on offer, each with very different advantages and disadvantages.
Sony can't afford to lose their gamer hobbyist fanbase, because internal pressure within the electronics giant demands shiny and impressive hardware that doesn't come cheaply. Only the hobbyists are willing to splash out on a console costing more than $250, and appealing to them requires a standard gamepad controller or something with superior precision to that, and nothing makes that latter proposition a likely horse to bet on right now. However, Nintendo have now proved what I've been saying for decades: the standard gamepad is a confusing, intimidating device for mass market players, who need something simpler if they're going to have any fun. (It is not a coincidence that the DS stylus and Wii Remote are the first game controllers since Pac-man that can be operated one-handed). If Sony want to recapture anything like the 120 million installed base of the PS2 – and of course they do – they have to cover both bases in one control scheme. That's why Move is so important to Sony; not to make money now, but to see if this is the way forward for the PS4 controller.
What of the situation facing Microsoft? They don't really want to be forced into a new hardware cycle because they have still only barely recovered from the haemorrhaging of cash their last two consoles inflicted upon the entertainment division. Kinect is an attempt to generate the same kind of 'new way to play' buzz that the Wii enjoyed in the hope of finding the next big interface, but right now neither their technology nor their interface design is even remotely good enough to break into this wider market, especially not at a cost of $300 all-in (50% more than a Wii). The most promising aspect of the new device – voice control – is still a long way off in real terms, and if Microsoft had what was needed in this regard they'd be pushing it out much further than just the entertainment division. As anyone who has been stuck talking to an automated call centre program knows, voice recognition just isn't up to scratch yet.
Ultimately, I'm doubtful the fate of the next generation of game consoles is going to be determined by a purely gestural interface like EyeToy or Kinect. Make-believe theory suggests that kinaesthetic mimicry is always improved by a physical prop – as CNN observed in their review of Kinect, "games that would be better enhanced with a physical device in hand feel flat." To put this another way: it's more fun to pretend you're shooting a real gun than to pretend you're shooting when you have nothing in your hand, so until gesture detection beats mechanical controllers for accuracy (i.e. sometime between the future and never), Kinect is a novelty and not the next big thing in interfaces. On the whole, this suggests the pressure is off Microsoft for the time being. They have little to gain from being first mover next time around, and everything to gain from waiting as long as possible before committing to a new machine, and a new interface.
My impression is that Nintendo don't have another ace up their sleeve right now, having already played their best hand in twenty years with the Wii and DS, the latter being set to overtake the PS2 as the most successful console of all time any time soon. But no software developer outside of the Kyoto-based global corporation has really dealt with the problem that making games for the mass market means more than just simplifying the interface, it also requires the creation of entirely new development cultures able to make games for people other than diehard gamers. This gives Nintendo a corner on the lucrative wider audience for games, those who play few different games but who consequently contribute to gigantic sales figures with the games that do appeal to the masses. Neither Sony nor Microsoft have the developer talent in this space to supplant Nintendo right now, allowing the venerable company to effectively coast for a few years until they develop something innovative enough to push out the boat again. If there isn't another revolution waiting in the wings – and it's certainly not clear that there is this time – Nintendo can afford to drag their feet when it comes to a new home console, although I bet the distant sound of Sony's bugles can be heard all too clearly in Nintendo head office.
Ultimately, this puts Sony in the uncomfortable position of being forced to move first into uncharted (or at least, poorly understood) waters. The first mover advantage only works when you have something new to offer, and that has never been Sony's strong point. Conventional games industry wisdom tends to think that when all else fails, you just pump up the power – but if that didn't work this time around, you can bet it isn't going to be the decisive factor next time either. What Sony desperately needs is permission to be truly disruptive, to make their new machine better adapted to our schizophrenic new marketplace rather than to simply crank it up a notch. But the electronics conglomerate is neither agile nor prescient enough to move against its own corporate momentum. Hence, PS4 in 2012 – even if Sony don't yet know what kind of controller it's going to have to ship with.